2018 NFL Preview: Will the Patriots get Tom Brady another ring before he's done?

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Let’s take a step back and appreciate what Tom Brady did at 40 years old. It’s unprecedented.

If you’re not reading this from New England, your blood is already boiling because complimenting Brady isn’t in anyone’s nature. But put aside your irrational hatred for him for a moment and realize that through nearly 100 years of NFL football, he was the best 40-year-old to ever play.

Brady won an MVP at 40. He became the oldest MVP in NFL history by three years. He set a record as the oldest MVP in any major American professional sport. To cap it off he set a record with 505 yards in the Super Bowl. He broke his own Super Bowl record of 466 yards. Nobody else has ever thrown for more than 414 yards in a Super Bowl.

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For anyone else, and any other team, it would be a historic and memorable season. Of course, Brady’s unbelievable 40-year-old season didn’t end as he or the New England Patriots hoped. The Philadelphia Eagles scored with a little more than two minutes left in the Super Bowl, the Eagles forced a Brady fumble after that and held on. The bar has been set so high by one of the greatest dynasties ever that coming 2:21 from another Super Bowl win seems a bit empty.

We all expect the Patriots to keep making it back to Super Bowls forever, because that’s what they do. If this was any other team and we saw a 41-year-old quarterback (Brady turns 41 on Friday), a lot of offseason drama and some major personnel losses in free agency, we’d have concern. With the Patriots, we just assume (dread?) that nothing will change and they’ll be great again.

But this run won’t go on forever. The run of AFC East titles will continue this season, because the AFC East absolutely stinks again, but one of these years it won’t all magically come together for New England. The defensive deficiencies won’t be patched up, or the loss of some offensive weapons won’t be overcome. Or, Brady will start looking his age.

Anything positive Brady does this season will be historic, again. Only five quarterbacks in NFL history have attempted 100 or more passes in a season at age 41 or older. Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon did it twice. Only two – Moon and Doug Flutie – have had a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio, and Flutie’s was just nine touchdowns to four interceptions in five starts. The best rating for a 41-year-old quarterback is a middling 83.7, by Moon. Brady’s rating last season was 102.8 and he had never posted a rating in a full season lower than 85.7.

Brady is no longer in a small group of quarterbacks playing at a high level at his age; he’s basically in a class by himself. He has outlasted all the old quarterbacks, aside from one decent season from Moon. The last time we saw Brady he posted the only 500-yard passing game in NFL playoff history. He looks far more likely to win a fourth MVP this season than hit a wall. Yet, there’s no template for Brady having any real success at his age. If Brady posts anything close to his career norms, it would blow away anything any 41-year-old quarterback has ever done.

Brady’s window is open to win a record sixth ring, but when that window closes it might slam down hard. The descent for old quarterbacks is rarely gradual. Even the team around Brady wasn’t quite as dynamic as usual last season. The Patriots started slow, and the defense gave up the fourth-most yards in the NFL. They needed a controversial catch rule reversal on Jesse James (correctly called under the old rule, which has changed) to win a much-needed game against the Steelers, then a miracle comeback to knock off the Jaguars in the AFC championship game before the Nick Foles-led Eagles shredded them in the Super Bowl. The Patriots looked like they were built to make a run at perfection, and they were far from that. The Patriots were very good, and will be very good again, but they’re relying on Brady more than ever. We saw that against the Eagles.

Maybe the train will keep rolling for several years. Brady has already beaten plenty of odds at his age, so why not some more? New England is still well within the group of legitimate Super Bowl contenders, thanks in no small part to their bumbling division rivals. This historic run will end soon and the Patriots will give someone else a chance to dominate the AFC. But when?

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will try again to get his sixth Super Bowl ring. (AP)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will try again to get his sixth Super Bowl ring. (AP)

We always grade the Patriots on a curve because they make more moves that surprisingly work out than anyone else in the league. But they lost plenty this offseason. The big signing was defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who is solid at best. The only other notable additions were running back Jeremy Hill and receiver Jordan Matthews, and they got $2.5 million combined. Here’s who the Patriots lost: offensive tackle Nate Solder, cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis, and receivers Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks. We’ll even throw on tackle Cameron Fleming, whose $2.5 million deal was as much as Hill and Matthews combined. It should also be noted that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left too, though the team somehow convinced offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to torch his reputation and turn down the Colts after he agreed to take their head-coaching job. The Patriots were active in trades, adding defensive tackle Danny Shelton, cornerback Jason McCourty, receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and offensive tackle Trent Brown. They’ll all help. Offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel, the team’s first-round picks, might contribute right away. Still, that’s a lot to lose in one offseason.

GRADE: C-

For all of the headlines, it seems Bill Belichick will be around for a while. The Patriots were aggressive last offseason but not so much this year, especially as they continued to trade in the draft for future picks. Belichick treated this offseason like he’s in it for the long haul. While there was a lot said about his style, and the speculation surrounding Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski was pretty loud, as long as Belichick is head coach the Patriots will be good. While we’ll never know Belichick’s plan beforehand, all signs point to him sticking around.

The Patriots’ defense wasn’t good last season. It did a fine job for a while suppressing points allowed, but the dam broke in the Super Bowl as Nick Foles and the Eagles torched them (and no, I still don’t know why they didn’t use benched Malcolm Butler). The Patriots’ defense ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. I’m not sure how it gets much better. Jason McCourty for Butler doesn’t seem like an upgrade. Danny Shelton might thrive in New England but he has been mostly just OK; the 0-16 Browns gave up on him. Dont’a Hightower’s return from injury helps but he has played all 16 games in one of six NFL seasons. Also, coordinator Matt Patricia is gone. The Patriots almost won a Super Bowl in spite of their defense last season and it might be a liability again.

While I was surprised the Patriots sold very low on Jimmy Garoppolo without shopping him around, we knew he had to be traded or lost in free agency. I’m more confused why the Patriots were so excited to dump Jacoby Brissett for almost nothing. He looked decent with the Colts last season. Now the Patriots don’t have a replacement for 41-year-old Tom Brady. It’s not going to be Brian Hoyer. I can’t imagine it’s seventh-round pick Danny Etling. I was surprised the Patriots didn’t use one of two-first round picks (or both, to trade up) to get a quarterback. Perhaps they’re tired of trying to guess when Brady will retire, and will just cross the bridge when they come to it. But for now, it’s a little scary.

Obviously it’s Rob Gronkowski. But since we all know how great Gronk is, I think it’s worth looking at receiver Chris Hogan here. Hogan is going to have a much bigger role than anticipated, after the Brandin Cooks trade, Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension and Danny Amendola’s departure in free agency. Hogan had 33-438-5 in eight games last season before suffering a shoulder injury that wrecked the second half of his season, but he did put up 6-128-1 in the Super Bowl. That might be a sign of things to come. Gronkowski will be the focal point of a great passing game, but Hogan is going to have a huge role too.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Patriots get a bad rap as a team you can’t trust for fantasy purposes, especially in the backfield. See past that cheap meme. LeGarrette Blount was the RB7 in 2016, and if you start the grading in Week 4, Dion Lewis was the RB7 last season (averaging 17 touches per week over his final 11 games). This is a bankable offense that escorts its running backs into the end zone — albeit New England rarely relies on just one featured runner.

“First-round draft choice Sony Michel is the most-expensive Patriots back, settling in at a 73.1 ADP in early Yahoo drafts. Alas, Michel had a fumbling problem at Georgia, and it makes him a risky pick if you have to take him at an expectant price. Rex Burkhead’s ADP is two rounds cheaper, and he was quietly effective last year, scoring eight times on a modest 94 touches. That touchdown rate is almost impossible to duplicate, but Burkhead will probably have better injury luck than last season — leading to an increased workload.

“Although the roster is cluttered past these two runners — James White will have a role, and Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill are both battling for a spot — Burkhead is the early favorite to get the precious goal-line work. Those potential cheap scores make Burkhead the better current value among the two primary RB choices.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Patriots.]

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In four of the last six seasons, and six of the last 10, the Patriots have finished in the NFL’s top 10 in rushing yards. They’ve also finished in the top 12 in rushing touchdowns an amazing 14 straight seasons. The Patriots will have an effective running game, but it will look a lot different without Dion Lewis. Lewis had a tremendous 2017 season, but he signed with the Tennessee Titans. The Patriots, who rarely invest in running backs, used a first-round pick on Georgia’s Sony Michel. They must like him a lot, but Michel will have to prove he’s over a fumbling issue he had in college. If Michel slips up at all, perhaps Rex Burkhead could be the lead back. He has done a good job in lesser roles with the Patriots and Bengals. Even guys like Jeremy Hill or James White could emerge at various times. New England almost always has a good running game to complement Tom Brady.

ARE WE UNDERESTIMATING THE LOSS OF NATE SOLDER?

The New York Giants made Nate Solder the highest-paid left tackle in NFL history, on average per year, last March. Solder and his $15.5 million per season was just surpassed by Taylor Lewan’s extension with the Tennessee Titans, but Solder was in high demand as a free agent. It won’t be easy to replace him. There are some questions about Trent Brown, who was acquired from the 49ers in an offseason trade and began camp as the starting left tackle ahead of first-round pick Isaiah Wynn. Brown is a massive tackle and can move well, though he is coming off shoulder surgery and has mostly played right tackle in the NFL. While Brown could thrive in a bigger spot, it’s still a position to watch as the season starts.

The Patriots have enough talent to field the best offense in the league, and the defense shouldn’t be that bad again. New England is the only team that has won a division title before Week 1 even kicks off – I can’t imagine the calamities that would have to befall the Patriots to lose the AFC East to the Bills, Dolphins or Jets – so the road is easier for them than anyone else. That’s not saying the Patriots haven’t earned every bit of their dynasty, but being in such a lame division allows them wiggle room that other teams don’t have. If Tom Brady plays at an MVP level again, New England could get that sixth ring.

Again, the absolute worst realistic outcome for the Patriots still includes them winning the division. Even if Tom Brady goes down, is Brian Hoyer any worse than AJ McCarron, Ryan Tannehill or Josh McCown? That said, the Patriots are beyond worrying about division titles. Anything less than another Super Bowl ring would be disappointing, because Brady can’t have too many years left.

I see the Patriots virtually repeating last season. They’ll be very good, yet not great. Because nobody can challenge them in the division, we all know the only relevant regular-season question is whether they get a No. 1 seed. I assume, because they practically start with a 6-0 record (maybe 5-1 if they’re unlucky) thanks to the AFC East, we’ll see the AFC title go through Foxborough again. And we’ll see the Patriots in the Super Bowl again. And once they’re there, Tom Brady will give them a shot to win it all.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. New Orleans Saints
4. Philadelphia Eagles

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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